Saturday, 14 January 2017

Reporter's diary: Inside Mosul as Islamic State collapses

Reporter's diary: Inside Mosul as Islamic State collapses

14 January, 2017

As the Mosul offensive began to stagnate in late October, and criticism mounted that it had been too reliant on a few specific units, Iraq's Rapid Response Division (ERD) were repositioned to the south-east of the city.

The US-trained unit were bought into the fold and are now leading the charge from the south-east. This is an elite group of troops, and being under the direct control of the Ministry of Interior - not the army - it is less hindered by the copious bureaucracy and nepotism, both throwbacks to Saddam's Iraq, that still plague many of the Iraqi army's regular units.  They are a diverse unit, drawing men from all over Iraq, including the Kurdish areas.

I join them as they launch a final push to clear the south-eastern Al-Somer neighbourhood. On the east bank of the river Tigris, one commander tells me there are just a dozen or so ISIS fighters holding out in a handful of streets.

The resistance may be small in number, but it is anything but token. The Islamic State group's jihadists have proven throughout the past three months that they are willing to fight to the death for Mosul. 

For the ERD, who are supported by the federal police, danger could be lurking in any of the thousands of houses in this neighbourhood.

Advancing down each street, men peel off the main formation, kicking open front gates to search houses.

Their guns loaded, searching for hidden fighters, the fear of ambushes and IEDs is ever-present, regardless of their bravado.

Entering the courtyard of a house being used as a sniper position by the jihadists, there lie two dismembered bodies.

These jihadists had been struck by mortars just that morning; they had not just been firing on approaching coalition forces, but also at civilians attempting to flee the fighting - something that has become the norm in this city's bloody battle.

Here the cars of local residents block the streets, something Iraqi forces ask them to do in newly liberated areas as a defence against IS' devastating car bombs.

The Iraqi government claims IS has deployed as many as 1,000 such car bombs against coalition forces in the three months since the start of the Mosul operation - they are the jihadists' guided munitions, the ultimate smart bomb in many regards.

These cars present just one sign of the civil resistance that IS has come up against in recent months.

ERD officers claim a huge network of informants across the city, and many of Al-Somer's residents greet the ERD's soldiers with cries of relief and hugs of gratitude. It is clear, at least on this day, that many of the concerns about Iraq's Shia-dominated security forces have not materialised, and any organic support for the fundamentalist group appears to have withered away long ago.

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